Tuned In

The Morning After: Simon Shows Us What We're Losing

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Last night’s American Idol debut was the first episode sans Paula Abdul, and the first since Simon Cowell’s blockbuster announcement that he will leave the show after this season to launch another singing competition for Fox, The X Factor.

The first audition episode dealt directly and upfront with the drama that led to Paula walking and Ellen DeGeneres being named as her replacement (though Ellen will not join the show until later, not having been around for auditions). It didn’t, maybe because of the late date, go into the Simon situation.

But in any case, Idol’s producers and Fox have shrugged off the changes, saying that the show is about the contestants, not the judges. Last night’s return, though, was only a reminder that that is not exactly true.

Yes, it is true that, by the time an Idol season ends, it is about the new stars that the show has created, their singing, their competition and their dreams. But it takes a long time to get there. Even once we reach the finals, it takes a few episodes for favorites to emerge and loyalties to develop. Before that, the audience needs something to attach to besides the string of bad-and-a-few-good singers. That something is the judges.

Love or hate Paula, it was already clear last night that the show lost a certain something without her. The snippiness, real or forged, between Simon and Kara DioGuardi, had nothing like the charge of his and Paula’s sniping. (The show bravely recognized Kara’s forgettability, showing one auditioner actually mistaking her for Paula.)

As for Paula’s replacement, we’ll have to wait and see what Ellen does, but Victoria Beckham’s showing does not bode well for the guest-judge format we’re stuck with until then. On paper, Posh Spice—briefly famous for her music in the ’90s, then famous for other things since then—is a Paula equivalent. But her main contribution was to anyone playing a drinking game based on the number of times she could use the adjective “nice.”

Simon, meanwhile, showed himself to be leaving the show at the top of his wicked game, cutting back on the gratuitous physical insults of past seasons, but now and then shaking himself from his studied boredom to lay out in a few poison-tipped phrases why an aspirant can never, ever, hope to have a singing career.(“I would love to fly to the moon. But I can’t.”)

Yeah, some of the auditioners were engaging too. Maddy Curtis is my early favorite for no other reason than recognizing that “Hallelujah” is originally a Leonard Cohen and not a Jeff Buckley song. But it’s going to be long weeks before any of them really have faces.

Until then, the judges are the stars of the show, or at least the lead players in an ensemble. Good luck with that next year.